My Statues Are Real Gems

When we were kids we had the bright idea to sell pretty stones. We found that if we peed on the pebbles in the alley they became colorful and shiny. Our pee acted as a window into the stone and showed you the bright colors and the beautiful patterns inside. We loaded up our wagon and, keeping the stones wet, went around the neighborhood offering them door-to-door for money.

Years later I met a sculptor who had the same idea. But instead of wetting his pretty marble statues, he polished them. Polishing stones does the same thing, but better. Big, gray, boulders such as you might see anywhere in the countryside become giant precious stones when you polish them. The accidents of geology and chemistry produce surprising—bold—color mixtures and juxtapostions, and patterns in curious sweeps and rhythms. A polished stone, though not a work of art (since art is a human thing) is a treat for the eye and also for the fingertips, which can’t help but participate in the appreciation. So using colored stones for his statues was that sculptor’s sure success.

What is objectionable about this? Don’t the bright colors liven up the statue—improve it? Ashen stone statues are grim enough usually. Shouldn’t a figure suggest the warmth and color of life? Bernini complained that the sculptor was hopelessly handicapped because his white stone would always make a figure look like a ghost instead of a living person.

Polished colored marble is bad sculpture because it calls the eye to what is inside the stone instead of the shapes on its surface. The streaks and colors steal the show from the figure. You might as well reduce your shapes to a minimum because they will not be appreciated or even perceived. It is the giant precious stones of your statues that will get a howl of delight from a buyer.

Colored stones have always been used for statues, of course. The Egyptians used them, the Romans used them. There are Caesars still around in all the museums with colored armor, and the occasional reclining god or goddess in porphyry, jade, and every kind of rare marble. The deeper the Roman decadence, the more colors you see, not only in statues, but in general decoration; but there are examples of this even in their Golden Age, which as far as their art was concerned, was a Leaden one. The Romans never even claimed to understand art, which was very fair of them.

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